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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Leonard Pitts

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Leonard Pitts

Last Build Date: Sun, 22 Jun 2008 00:00:00 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2008

Wearing the Victim Hat is Becoming Trendy

Sun, 22 Jun 2008 00:00:00 -0600

I offer the foregoing as a gesture of solidarity with an elementary school teacher in California who wrote to ask my opinion of two incidents that happened in her class.

In the first, a white boy -- we'll call him Bobby -- disagreed with a black boy. The black boy, who had been explaining something about his family to the teacher, told Bobby he would not understand because he was white. Bobby said this was racist.

In the second, Bobby complained that a classmate had called him a white boy. The classmate was a white girl. Bobby said she was racist.

For those of you playing along at home, here are two salient facts: 1) according to his teacher, Bobby frequently complains about racism against white kids; 2) 85 percent of the students at the school are white kids.

So, what do I think?

I think Bobby is troublingly eager to wear what I call the "victim hat," i.e., to be the one who gets to declare himself morally affronted, the one whose hurt feelings we are obligated to assuage, the one whose complaints we are required to listen to. In this, he is an accurate reflection of the nation in which he is coming of age. He is learning what we have taught.

The need, the abject "eagerness," of some white people to wear the victim hat is something I have noted with alarm in recent years. They are motivated, I think, by the fact that some black people make wearing the victim hat look like so much fun. Meaning that African-America has too often been caught crying "racism" reflexively, crying "wolf!" repeatedly, refusing, where perceived racial insult is concerned, to differentiate between the profound and the petty. We cry racism when the justice system is unjust or a Don Imus spews vitriol. Unfortunately, we also cry it when a Michael Jackson gets hauled up on charges of child molestation or a white bureaucrat uses the unfortunate, but inoffensive, word "niggardly."

If you are white, I suspect, you get tired of being on the receiving end, especially when much of what is called racism plainly is not. You figure two can play at this game and besides, you wouldn't mind being the one catered to for a while. So you grab the victim hat and, like Bobby, present yourself as mortally wounded by "racism" against you.

The problem with that is, if you represent 85 percent of the playground, no other group can organize to deny you access to the swings. Granted, they might call you names and I don't condone or minimize that. But there is a qualitative difference between suffering only that and suffering that plus exclusion from the swings. There is racism and there is racism, if you catch my drift.

And Bobby? I wish his black classmate had phrased his observation more tactfully, although since we're talking about kids, I understand why he did not. Still, Bobby is ultimately a "victim" only of his desire to be a victim.

I don't blame him for that. I blame us, his elders, for lacking the ability, the willingness, the vocabulary and the guts to talk about race frankly and intelligently. Some of us think talking about race equals racism, others cry "racism!" with spasmodic frequency, and yet others fight for their turn to wear the victim hat.

In short, we act like children.

Bobby, at least, has an excuse for that.

Today's Newsroom Not for the Chicken Hearted

Wed, 18 Jun 2008 00:20:00 -0600

So if Santeria -- it's a combination of Catholicism and the West African Yoruba religion -- has any miracles to work, it had better get busy.

Not that The Herald is alone. Virtually every newspaper is going through the same thing: shrinking profit margins, declining circulation, staff cutbacks and morale at subterranean levels as journalists struggle to figure out how we can save the American newspaper.

But I have come -- reluctantly -- to believe we can't. We must blow it up instead.

Doing otherwise is like trying to save record albums in an era where music is downloaded to iPods, trying to save film in an era where every camera is digital. People did not stop listening to music or taking pictures, but new methods of doing so evolved, and those who were in the business of selling music or pictures had to adapt or die.

We in the business of selling news have yet to adapt. Yes, every newspaper has a Web site now. Some, like The Herald, have TV and radio facilities as well. I'm talking about something more: a radical change of focus.

We still tend to regard our Web sites as ancillary to our primary mission of producing newspapers. But I submit that our primary mission is to report and comment upon the news, and that it is the newspaper itself that has become ancillary.

So maybe we should regard the Internet not as an extra thing we do, but as the core thing we do. Maybe we should maximize the fact that we know our cities as no one else does. Maybe we should make our Web sites not simply online recreations of our papers, but entities in their own right, destination portals for those who want news and views from and about a given city, but also for those who want to find a good doctor in that city, or apply for a job in that city or reach the leaders of that city or research the history of that city. Maybe the goal should be to make ourselves the one indispensable guide to that city. And then maybe we should hire away the bright people who figured out how to make Yahoo and Google profitable and ask them to make our sites profitable, too. Maybe -- heretical idea ahead -- it's as simple as requiring online readers to pay for the product, just as our other readers do.

If you are a connoisseur of irony, you may find it amusing that this argument comes from a guy who recently wrote that the Internet is eroding our ability to focus. Well, let me say this: I have fond memories of growing up in L.A. with the feisty (and long defunct) Herald-Examiner, and much of what I know about writing a column comes from Al Martinez of the Times, so none of this comes easily to me. Like most print journalists, I am sentimental about newspapers.

But I am also sentimental about eating.

A few weeks back, Carl Sessions Stepp, senior editor of the American Journalism Review, published a call to arms, an essay exhorting journalists to stop weeping over the state of their industry and launch an all-hands-on-deck, man-on-the-moon campaign to reinvent and save it. Consider this my way of seconding his motion.

I don't know how it is in Santeria, but in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have a saying: God helps those who help themselves.

I'll bet the chicken would agree.

Still Waiting to Hear from the Poor

Wed, 11 Jun 2008 00:00:00 -0600

The remark came in a discussion of the Cheney family tree. "We have Cheneys on both sides of the family," he said. "And we don't even live in West Virginia."

Get it? Ha-ha-ha. I mean, you know how it is up there in the hills and hollers of that state where the population is 95 percent white and the median family income is $10,000 below the national average: cousins marry cousins, brothers bed their pipe-smoking sisters. Pardon me while I slap my knee.

The comedy stylings of Dick Cheney drew bipartisan condemnation from West Virginia lawmakers and Cheney quickly issued an apology, which is good enough as far as it goes. Still, it's too bad there does not exist -- at least, not to my knowledge -- a national organization, an NAACP for poverty, as it were, that could provide us with context, help us see Cheney's "joke" not as an isolated episode but as part and parcel of a national pattern of neglect, if not outright scorn, for the have-nots among us.

Who speaks for the poor? Who raises a voice for them when their babies are born smaller and with lead in their blood? Who makes noise on their behalf when their schools turn out illiterates and their children are diagnosed with a higher rate of developmental disorders? Who cries out in their name when violence stalks their streets and schools and living rooms? Who says, "Wait a minute!" when their lives are reduced to caricature by media, or else ignored outright, which, in a very real sense, is the same as saying those lives do not exist.

No one speaks up because we have yet to develop language to encompass the whole of the issue. Oh, we talk some about black poverty or Hispanic poverty. Less often do we speak of white poverty and even less than that do we simply talk about poverty, period.

So that the poor become a scapegoat for budgetary red ink, object of Barack Obama's clumsy conjecture, punchline of Dick Cheney's joke, but seldom, John Edwards' candidacy notwithstanding, are they seen as people with valid concerns and inherent dignity.

If the poor ever recognized this, got mad about it and began to coalesce irrespective of race, they could realign politics as we know it, require the nation to grapple with, and construct remedies for, their suffering. This was Martin Luther King's last dream, the one he was fighting to redeem when he was killed.

Too bad we have not, since that day, found the imagination, vision, or courage to go where he led. The poor among us retreat instead into the easy comfort of tribalism, black with black, brown with brown, white with white, unable to conceive they might have common concerns that transcend melanin and ancestry. They divide themselves, and thus render themselves inconsequential so that those above in aeries of wealth and power can rest easy, unthreatened by demands for change.

So Dick Cheney's apology is nice and all, and it's good that West Virginia lawmakers stood up and demanded it. But you know something? At day's end, all of it is politics and none of it answers the paramount question of who speaks for the poor.

Or better yet, when do the poor finally speak for themselves?

The Messenger Who Killed the Message

Mon, 05 May 2008 00:32:13 -0600

Wright, as everyone this side of the Kuskokwim River knows, re-emerged in a big way recently. Having gone into seclusion after inflammatory soundbites from his sermons forced his one-time parishioner, presidential candidate Barack Obama, to make a high-stakes speech on race in Philadelphia, the longtime pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ came out to plead his own case.

He started strong in an interview with Bill Moyers, went quickly downhill with a keynote address before the NAACP in Detroit, and crashed with an appearance at the National Press Club in Washington. Indeed, while some white observers, charmingly eager to pretend they are victims of oppression, have contended for months that Wright's most striking sin is racism, this media blitz argues convincingly that Wright's signature failing is something else entirely: clownishness. With arrogance running a close second.

Not to deny Wright's affinity for the racially-charged soundbite. His refusal to disavow the old AIDS-was-created-by-the-government-to- kill-black-people canard was disappointing, to say the least, playing as it does into an unfortunate streak of paranoia and conspiracy theorizing that runs deep in the African-American community.

Similarly, his defense of Louis Farrakhan against charges of anti-Semitism -- that it's unfair to hold the Nation of Islam leader accountable for things he said 20 years ago -- is singularly weak. Until and unless Farrakhan apologizes for and repents of his years of Jew-baiting, it is entirely fair and, indeed, entirely necessary, for people of whatever religion, race or culture who believe in human equality to denounce him, all his good works notwithstanding.

If you condemn bigotry when it is turned against people like you, but tolerate it when people like you turn it against someone else, you forfeit all claim to the moral high ground. You are a hypocrite acting only from narrow self interest.

For all that, though, the thing about Wright's lost weekend that stands out most for me is his demeanor in the two speeches he gave: smug, mugging for the cameras, signifying, jive talking, acting the fool.

Did he really say an attack on him was an attack on the black church entire? Did he really make those faces and throw that silly salute? Why didn't he just slap his hands together, yell ''Dy-no-mite!'' and be done with it? Wright came across like drunken Uncle Buddy at the Thanksgiving table, the one who doesn't know he's not funny and won't shut up.

More to the point, he did not come across like a reverend. Or even a Christian. The heck of it is, he had insightful things to say about culture, about difference, about reconciliation. But the messenger killed the message.

It was bad enough that Obama was finally forced to sever ties with him. Bad enough that conspiracy theorists wondered aloud whether Hillary Clinton had a hand in setting up the speeches. Which is crazy, but you understand where it's coming from. Wright is this year's Willie Horton. Except that where Willie Horton was made by George H.W. Bush, Wright made himself.

He had his chance to walk on water but -- sorry, cousin -- he fell in instead. The only remaining question is whether he will pull Barack Obama down with him.

In Hillary's View, Lying Is Ok If It Helps

Sun, 30 Mar 2008 00:00:00 -0600

Most of us, I suspect, consider such fibs the political equivalent of white lies: unavoidable, but of no lasting significance. Besides, if you disqualified liars from the presidency, you'd have to do without a president for a while.

But even by that forgiving standard, Clinton's lie stands out. If you missed it: she's been telling audiences, as a way of burnishing her foreign policy credentials, how she had to dodge bullets when she went to Bosnia as first lady in 1996. "I remember landing under sniper fire," she said. "There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base."

It's a story that's thrilling, hair-raising ... everything but true. The comedian Sinbad, who was with Clinton on that trip, disputed her account, but she - incredibly - stuck with it. She did not stop telling the untruth until reporters who were on the trip called her on it and produced video showing Clinton and daughter Chelsea stepping calmly off a military transport and accepting a little girl's greeting. No gunfire, no running for her life.

She now says she "misspoke." It's a benign characterization of a troubling fact: the gap between Clinton and truth has become suddenly vast. And that raises manifold questions.

Chief among them is the one people asked of her husband Bill and New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer under different circumstances: what in the world was she thinking? Did she forget her arrival was viewed by witnesses, many with cameras? Did not it occur to her that if the first lady of the United States came under sniper fire, it would be newsworthy, something we'd all remember?

So bald and bold is the lie that it leaves me wondering if maybe she honestly remembers it that way. Science has shown we're all susceptible to false memory; it's not unheard of for a person to believe she's had an experience she has not, especially after years of telling and embellishing a story. As it happens, the events Clinton recalls did occur - just not to her. The Post reminds us that Sen. Olympia Snowe came under fire on a visit to Bosnia six months before Clinton got there. So perhaps Clinton has transferred the memory?

I know I'm reaching. Granted, someone might innocently misappropriate someone else's memory of something trivial, even something relatively important. But it requires a 6-year-old's credulity to believe a woman would not accurately recall whether she and her daughter came under sniper fire.

As I've said before in this space, there's a question I've always wanted to ask a presidential candidate: What would you not do to win? The answer, I think, would say more about character than all the slogans and 30-second spots in the world.

I'm curious to hear how Clinton would respond. Because if anything has distinguished her campaign this year, it's how nakedly she wants this job. They all want it, of course. You've got to want it badly to spend months slogging through truck stop cafes and Rotary Club meetings shaking hands and kissing babies. There's nothing wrong with wanting it badly.

This past week suggests, however, that there's something scary about wanting it too much.